"Brutal," Black Uhuru sing on the album's title track, "the whole world is brutal." And so it must have seemed to Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones in 1985. The previous year, the group had won a Grammy for its album Anthem, but had crashed from such dizzying heights in a matter of months. The pair were left in the lurch when founding member and main songwriter Michael Rose quit to pursue his solo career, and their relationship with Island Records came to an equally unsatisfactory conclusion. Regrouping, the duo brought in Junior Reid, a bit of synchronicity, as the singer had often worked in the past with Don Carlos, himself a founding member of Uhuru. More telling, however, was Reid's last project, Worry Struggle and Problem, a trio that also included Sugar Minott. Reid would bring an unexpected dancehall feel to the roots masters. Signing to Ras, and with Sly & Robbie and a party's worth of other musicians in tow, the trio set to work on the Doctor Dread-produced Brutal. Sadly, it's the production that lets down, and although Dread did his best to recapture the Taxi sound so integral to the group's previous albums, the best he could create was a kind of Taxi-lite. Producer Arthur Baker, in contrast, brought his own trademark sound to "Great Train Robbery," a masterpiece of beats, screaming guitar solos, and electronic wizardry wrapped around a stunning new wave arrangement. Of course, it was a club hit, although the trio was almost incidental to the song itself.
Urban fans were satiated by the title track, while "Let Us Pray" and "Fit You Haffe Fit" were aimed straight at the heart of the dancehall crowds. An older Jamaican audience apparently was catered to by "Vision" and "Reggae with You." This pair drew the trio deep into the island's past, the '60s in the former's case and early reggae in the latter's. "Reggae," with its upbeat lyrics and "just happy to dance" attitude, seems particularly surreal coming from a formerly classic dread band. Only Ducky Simpson's "Conviction or a Fine" returns the group to its previous rootsy stylings. Brutal may have garnered Uhuru another Grammy nomination, but it boded badly for the future. Their last few albums had been almost as eclectic, but they had been built around unique hybridizations, not a pastiche of styles. Here, only "Dread in the Mountain" is a successful blend of genres; elsewhere, the trio's trademark roots are overwhelmed. And the less said about Jones' foray into disco territory the better. But for all its flaws, there are still moments of greatness within. Meanwhile, the dub version of Brutal benefited from a great mixing job by Scientist, whose snaking patterns and boosting of Robbie Shakespeare's bass illuminated the appeal of the original production and songs. Guitarists Frank Stepanek and Daryl, plus rhythm guitar ace Willie Lindo and synthesizer master Tyrone Downie, played brilliantly, and percussion and horn support was seamlessly integrated. [This 2007 Ras release finds Brutal and its dub version packaged together for the first time with new liner notes added to the package.] ~ Jo-Ann Greene & Ron Wynn